The merits of consultative democracy

An orthodoxy in conventional democratic theory says that voting is all that really matters. Rongxin Li challenges the prominence of electoralism and majoritarianism in representative democratic practice. He argues that consultative democracy confers far more legitimacy on a decision than voting ever can or will

Bedazzled by ballots

For many people today, democracy still means nothing other than the sacrosanct mantra of one person, one vote. As mainstream accounts of democracy continue to promulgate, there is nothing other than Joseph Schumpeters admission that democracy can only work when the powerless are able to equally determine through their ballots which elites will govern them. A multiparty, electoral, and representative democracy that rotates powerful people is, therefore, broadly considered the most practicable and therefore best manifestation of democracy.

This belief is so strong that voting has become a matter of political correctness in democratic politics. This is the case even though it ignores the fact that electoral outcomes do not generate policy, or training in citizenship, as effectively as participatory and deliberative approaches to democracy do. Although procedure and substance, input and output, always intertwine in democracy, the vote maintains its tyrannical grip.

Political scientists continue to demonstrate the unfreedom of elections, for the poor in particular

Testaments to the glory of voting not only fail to indicate how elections systematically marginalise minorities. They also fail to underline how this 'arrogance of aggregation' with its 'ultimate decisiveness' may ultimately detract from the value of democracy. Giovanni Sartori had proposed a notion of 'limited majoritarianism' which he hoped would bring the minority into play. But his proposition has not translated well into practice. Political scientists continue to demonstrate the unfreedom of elections, for the poor in particular. The promise of 'one person, one vote' remains empirically embarrassing.

Is it time for consultative democracy?

Consultation refers to how decision-making processes consult citizens, stakeholders, or representatives of interest groups. This can happen through various mechanisms of consultation, such as referendums, town-hall meetings, or other forms of direct or indirect participation. Belgium's G1000 and G300 in France, the participatory budget in Porto Alegre, Brazil and in Wenli City, China, are examples of many around the globe. Consultative events like the G1000 and G300 randomly select 1000 or 300 people, respectively, to participate in the discussions they are hosting.

In consultative democracy, the public can voice their opinions, and their recommendations inform authorities' decision-making

These discussions take many shapes and can be a roundtable meeting, a group meeting, etc. They begin with a full discussion, in which the public have a fair opportunity to voice their opinions. Afterwards, recommendations are referred to some authoritative body to inform their decision-making. Today, the expectation is that referrals to authorities by consultative/deliberative bodies will do more than merely inform. Rather, they will be tabled as formal considerations in, for example, a town council or parliament, and the media will report on their outcomes.

Giving the people a voice

Consultative democracy covers a wide range of procedures. For example, consultation takes place in a particular locale; say, a conference room or a digital forum. It is more attuned to achieving compromise over conflict and bargaining over adversity. Its political style is, consequently, more inclusionary than exclusionary, and more concerned with proportional representation than majoritarianism.

Letting people participate and deliberate before decision-making happens confers democratic legitimacy on the outcome

Consultative democracy refers to how people are consulted. It gives them a 'voice' and the opportunity to 'say' what they want or feel in relation to the issue at hand or even related issues excluded by how the consultation organisers framed the consultative event. Importantly, consultation is against the mere aggregation of preferences, such as when people vote to decide on something. It is precisely by letting people participate and even deliberate before decision-making happens that democratic legitimacy is conferred on the outcome.

Voting should be a start- or mid-point, never an endpoint

Saying that consultative democracy is better than one-person-one-vote electoralism is not a complete value judgment. All kinds of democracy (including deliberative democracy) may resort to voting in the end, especially if consensus is proving difficult. A vote would end the discursive agony.

Voting has long been problematic in the history of collective decision making. I refer, in particular, to three critiques:

1. Voting is 'arrogant'

People often frame democratic aggregation procedures as authoritative, decisive, and final until, at least, the next election comes around. The finality of the vote is arrogant in its dismissal of dissidents, vulnerable minorities, and so forth. These groups are deemed as having 'lost' the decision, even though their loss may well have had more to do with the uneven playing field.

2. Voting is not an equal opportunity endeavour

People tend to see elections as being fully legitimate the second after the ballot-counting ends. They fail to consider whether the electoral system used to conduct the vote was appropriate to the situation, whether the administrators ensured all electors had equal opportunity to vote, nor whether the lack of voters (a common problem in certain so-called established democracies) renders the electoral result void.

3. It is dangerous to rely on a voting mechanism alone

There are many criticisms of Schumpeterian output democracy. However, democratic theory still considers it an orthodoxy, normatively and practically, to the point of it being politically correct. Relying on a voting mechanism to assess whether a democracy qualifies as fully democratic is therefore hazardous.

Given these three critiques, I can only say that voting is a minimally necessary but wholly insufficient condition of representative, electoral, democracy. Voting is not the whole story of this commonly practiced form of democracy. This is particularly true because it has difficulty factoring in the nuances of plural opinions, identity politics, the concerns of both historically and structurally marginalised peoples, and the voiceless (nature in particular).

Consultative democracy, which can involve formal deliberative techniques, offers a far more legitimate outcome than voting ever will. For this reason alone, I argue we should only take a vote to help consultation along; never to end it when the talking gets tough.

No.84 in a Loop thread on the science of democracy. Look out for the  to read more in our series

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Rongxin Li
Rongxin Li
Postdoctoral Fellow, Peking University and Research Center for Chinese Politics

Rongxin gained his PhD from the Research Center of Sociological and Political Study in Paris, and Paris 8 University.

His main research focuses are Chinese politics, (deliberative) democracy, authoritarianism, and dictatorship.

He tweets @li_rongxin

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